“I want to go in that one, Mommy!” exclaims Brynn Comes (age 6), pointing towards a moss-green 1930s-style motorbike with sidecar. Her brother, 4-year-old Alden, smiles up at his maternal grandparents Dennis and Darlene Koehler, who are visiting from the US and joining us today on our Beijing Sideways tour.
Mom Michelle Comes straightens out Brynn’s hair and adjusts her headband in the parking lot just outside the north gate of Worker’s Stadium, the start and end point of the two-hour tour. We will be seeing the CCTV Tower, the Ming Dynasty Wall Relics Park, the hutongs around Qianmen, the National Centre for the Performing Arts, and Houhai.
The Comes family has been living in Beijing for two years and has never taken a motorcycle sidecar tour before. Frenchman Gaël Thoreau founded Beijing Sideways in 2008 to share his unique perspective of the city, having taken friends and family on numerous motorcycle trips in the past. The father of two has lived in Beijing for nearly 15 years and first came to the city to do an internship at a textile factory.
Thoreau explains that the tour is flexible, but he usually tries to show visitors and residents alike the stark contrast between old and new Beijing.
All tours are led by insiders who have lived in Beijing for more than two years and are interested in sharing their knowledge of the city.
One motorbike with a sidecar seats three, including the driver; one passenger sits in the sidecar while the other hops onto the seat behind the driver and holds on to a handle for stability. The kids will share one sidecar and be strapped in with safety belt. Each passenger is given a helmet, which has the added bonus of keeping dust off our faces on this blustery day.
Beijing Sideways has a fleet of seven motorcycles, but also uses the occasional freelance driver. Our driver is late, but guns it to catch up with the rest of the group. Heading south from the Worker’s Stadium through the south gate, Thoreau and the second driver take the Comes and the Koehlers to Dongdaqiao Lu, head east on Jinghua Xilu then south to Jinhua Jie, stopping at CBD History and Culture Park. Surrounded by tall buildings, the park’s existence is usually only known to locals.
Heading east on Jinhua Jie, we then get onto Jinghua Donglu and make our way south to Guanghua Lu, stopping at the intersection of Dongsanhuan Beilu. To the east, we glimpse the famous CCTV Tower, which started construction in 2004 and was completed in 2012. It was voted the Best Tall Building Worldwide in 2013 by the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.
After a quick photo op, we head southwest through Jianguomen to end up in Chongwenmen. We enter the parking lot of the Ming Dynasty Wall Relics Park, which is said to be in the precise middle of Beijing. The wall was built in 1419, but most of it has since been torn down to make way for the Beijing subway; only 1.5km of the original 40km stands today. The park itself was completed in 2003.
Completed in 1439, the Southeast Corner Tower was restored in 1983 and is now part of the park. Admission to the tower is free; within, there’s a small exhibition about the history of the wall. We don’t have time to go in, but it’s worth a walk.
After about 15 minutes in the park, we head south to the entrance of a small lane called Wenxing Hutong. For the first time, we get a sense of how loud our motorbikes are as we weave through the narrow hutongs. The sounds of our engines causes dogs to bark ferociously.
We stop at the entrance of a randomly-chosen hutong house as Thoreau climbs off his bike and begins to explain the architecture of the doorways. He shows the group a dome-like feature in the wall, which people used in the old days as a boost to mount their horses.
The hutongs in the southern part of Beijing were different from the ones in the north, as local Chinese were confined to the south while noble Manchu families lived in the north.
After a short break, we start up the engines again and head west to a local bakery, where we stop to get freshly-made pancakes called shaobing. We inadvertently hold up traffic and get inpatient groans from deliverymen on their electric bikes. As we wait for the food, Brynn and Alden entertain themselves by picking leaves.
Back on the bikes, we meander through the hutongs and soak in the sight of primary schools, shops, restaurants, and yes, smelly public toilets. We pass a street market selling produce, meat, and grains as well as clothes and shoes displayed in makeshift stalls consisting of plastic crates laid on empty sacks.
After waving from our sidecars like the Queen, basking in our 15 seconds of laowai fame, we head northeast and make our way to Qianmen Donglu, then past Tian’anmen Square to the National Centre for Performing Arts.
At the “Egg,” Thoreau stops only for a photo session and gives a brief history of the building. By this time our two littlest adventurers are dozing, so we skip anymore talk about the Egg, then zoom north to Jingshan Qianjie. We stop at the corner of the Palace Museum, where we all get a chance to stretch. When Thoreau quizzes us about the area, the conversation digresses to Brynn’s love of chocolate and her missing tooth.
For a few meters, Thoreau allows Alden to “drive” his mother and sister, drawing curious glances from nearby couples getting their wedding pictures taken. After strapping Alden back into the sidecar, we head north and pass Jingshan Park on the way to Houhai. We go around the lake the sidecars; most of the shops are still closed at 11am. We stop to get some photos, but hunger as well as Brynn and Alden’s dropping little heads tell us it’s time to should head back to Worker’s Stadium.
We bid each other goodbye, taking time to get our legs working again. As we shake hands with our guides, the kids’ grandfather says to Thoreau in his mild southern accent: “You got a good thing going here.”
Beijing Sideways has a four-hour tour that includes a pit stop for lunch, more time at Beijing landmarks, and a start and end point chosen by the customer. The company provides blankets and coats in the winter, as well as masks if the AQI warrants it. For braver souls, Beijing Sideways runs excursions to the Great Wall.
Two-hour tour: RMB 900 for the first passenger; RMB 500 for the second (two hours). Four-hour tour: RMB 1,200 for the first passenger, RMB 750 for the second. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to book a tour or visit the website for more info.
- Worker’s Stadium
- CBD History and Culture Park
- CCTV Tower
- Ming Dynasty Wall Relics Park
- Southern hutongs
- National Centre for the Performing Arts
- Palace Museum
This article originally appeared on p34-37 in the November 2014 issue of beijingkids. To view it online for free, click here. To find out how you can obtain your own copy, email email@example.com.
Photos: Dave PiXSTUDIO